‘Chablis’ by Donald Barthelme

In the summer of 1993, when I was 18, I stayed in a timeshare apartment in Lanzarote with some friends. The apartment had cable TV, which none of us had back in England, so for hours each day we sat around watching MTV Europe, curtains closed against the permanent sun as our hangovers ebbed.

We heard a handful of songs a host of times: ‘Numb’ by U2, ‘Plush’ by Stone Temple Pilots and Soul Asylum’s ’Runaway Train’ were all in heavy rotation, but it wasn’t the music that made a lasting impression. In 1991 MTV made a series of public information broadcasts called Books: Feed Your Head, designed to get teenagers reading. Two years later, these short films had either only just made it onto MTV Europe or were still playing. Either way, they changed my life. Sherilyn Fenn reading a passage from Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus was fine, as was Aidan Quinn hamming up Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but the one that really sunk its hooks into me was Timothy Hutton, standing at a barbecue in a hot, windy yard perched above a freeway, performing what I later found out was the opening paragraph of a story called ‘Chablis’ by someone called Donald Barthelme.

The extract struck me as being perfect: characterful, unexpected, and honed with the precision of a really fine piece of comedy (watching it again I don’t enjoy Hutton’s delivery as much; I remember it being more deadpan). As soon as I got home I tracked down 40 Stories, found ‘Chablis’ right at the front of it, and started a love affair with Barthelme’s work that continues to this day (although ‘Chablis’, it’s worth noting, is something of a realist outlier for him). To be honest, falling in love with Donald Barthleme probably set my writing back a few years, because there is nothing so disastrous as a bad version of his writing, and any attempt to emulate his writing is bad, or at least inferior.  You can see George Saunders struggling with this influence – far better than most, but still struggling – in his first collection, Civilwarland in Bad Decline.

That same summer of 1993, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son was published in the UK, a book that quickly became my other pole star and which also led me down many treacherous and frustrating paths as a writer. Almost any of the stories in Jesus’ Son could fill both of the old and new halves of this list, because they have lived with me for 25 years but I also re-read the collection so often, and each time find so much in it, that the stories can feel like new discoveries, too.

In his 1981 Paris Review ‘Art of Fiction’ interview, Barthelme was asked about his influences. “They come in assorted pairs”, he said: “Perelman and Hemingway. Kierkegaard and Sabatini. Kafka and Kleist. Kleist was clearly one of Kafka’s fathers”. Robert Musil, when he first read Kafka, described him as “a peculiar case of the Walser type”. Which brings us to…

From 40 Stories, Penguin 1989, first published in the New Yorker December 1983. Hear Etgar Keret read and discuss the story here, and see the MTV short film here

‘King of Jazz’ by Donald Barthelme

King of short stories. As a recovering trombonist, I can hardly fail to be moved by the opening sentence: “Well I’m the king of jazz now, thought Hokie Mokie to himself as he oiled the slide on his trombone.” Sold! What follows is a riotous send-up of the endless “cutting contests” by which old-time jazzers, men to a man, fought their way to the top. Is there more to this story than the virtuosic language-games which Barthelme played almost better than anybody else? The answer lies in a strange paragraph which marks the turn of the tale. Here Barthelme, admittedly while describing Hokie’s solo on a tune called “Cream”, changes tack and embarks on a rapturous long list of improbably beautiful real and imagined sounds: “like an oyster fungus growing on an aspen trunk” for example. Which elicits the comment “That was the dadblangedest thing I ever saw!”

(1977; now in Sixty Stories, Penguin. Online here